Updated: Aug 15
Feet are strange things. So many people have an instinctive, visceral reaction to feet and rightfully so: feet can be gross. Feet sometimes smell bad. We can develop corns, blisters, ingrown nails, and hammer toes. They are not necessarily pretty things to look at and we tend to keep our feet to ourselves. We are not accustomed to people touching our feet as opposed to the familiar pat on the back, the shaking of hands, or an arm around the shoulder. The only people who touch our feet may be a spouse or a close relative or a professional such as a doctor or nail technician. We are protective of our feet and vigilantly control who has access to them and when.
I guess it is not surprising that when we come to Maundy Thursday people have ambivalent emotions about the ritual footwashing we engage in. I mean, what we are asking people to perform a private practice publicly and not just anywhere, but in our sacred space with people they may not know well. It can feel uncomfortable, awkward, and invasive, and yet, it is what Jesus invites–no, commands–us to do. Too often, we are quick to echo Peter’s words, declaiming, “You will never wash my feet (John 14:8).”
Jesus washed the disciples feet to demonstrate how we are to live with one another. Often we consider this in terms of the one doing the washing. We focus on the humility of that action. How taking a towel, bending down in front of a fellow member of Christ's body, and washing their feet is preaching the gospel through a physical act. This act proclaims that we love each other with a love that does not puff up the self, but engenders a desire to serve each other and to meet each other's needs. Dipping our hands into a basin of water, pouring it over the feet of another, and wiping their feet dry with a towel teaches that our love places the needs of the other higher than the needs of the self.
But what about the other half of the act? What about the one allowing their feet to be washed? What do we learn from being the recipient of this loving act?
I believe that the most important lesson footwashing can teach us is that it is ok to be vulnerable in the presence of each other and in the presence of God. In the moment we remove our shoes and socks and expose our feet which may be ugly or we may be ashamed of, instead of being rejected, they are tenderly cared for. Our vulnerability is met with acceptance and it is not only the person washing that experiences humility, but the recipient as well. Humility is present, arising from the lack of rejection or derision, from the willingness to become vulnerable, and from the ordinary intimacy of human touch.
Offering our feet to be washed also teaches us about God. If our companions in the Way do not reject our vulnerability or deride our shame, how much more will God honor those parts of us? If we can trust the person before us with our feet, how much more can we trust the one who created us with the spiritual and emotional parts of ourselves we try to cover up and hide? This outward act conveys the inward spiritual grace of a sacred love that meets us right where we are and as we are. It is ok to be apprehensive about making ourselves vulnerable, but Maundy Thursday's footwashing teaches us that vulnerability is part of growing closer to God and each other.
I encourage you to consider participating in this holy act this year, particularly if you have not done so before. Allow yourself to be vulnerable through sitting in the chair, express your humility in taking up the towel and washing another's feet, and experience God's the unconditional love of God made present through this caring act.